Earlier this week, I played around four hours of BioShock: Infinite, which is due for release next March. While this was at a publisher-held event (disclaimer - I ate some free salt and vinegar flavoured Hula Hoops and a small bowl of Moroccan tagine. Alas, I hate aubergine) and I was part of a gaggle of journalists, I was not guided or observed during my playthrough, so I approached it at my own leisure and pack-rat pace.
It has given me much to think upon, a few examples of which I shall share with you below. I will avoid all spoilers as regards to the events of the plot, but please be advised that I do talk in detail about the setting, its population and its backstory as presented by these initial hours of the game.
1. Before we begin proper, let us talk of matters technical. I was playing on PC, with a keyboard and mouse, and found little to complain of even if this could not be said to be the highest tech of games. The colourfulness, stylisation and setting made it a very pleasant sight for jaded eyes nonetheless, and there's a density of small details that will likely make many developers deeply envious. Immediately rummaging through the options menu, as is my wont, I spotted these alterable features:
- Highlight important objects
- Highlight searchable objects
- Art subtitles
- Adjust visual margins
- Enemy health bars
- Unlock framerate
So we shouldn't be hinted at and gleamed at too much if we don't want to, and it won't feel like looking through a Big Daddy's helmet on our big monitors.
2. The first few minutes of the game are almost a shot-for-shot recreation of BioShock 1's atmospheric and unsettling intro, though where that started in fire, disaster and menace this begins with a peaceful boat ride in the company of two posh strangers who barely acknowledge protagonist Booker DeWitt, a tranquil lighthouse and, playing inside it, a calming old-fashioned hymn. Where the statue of Andrew Ryan demanded we cower, here we're met with a bowl of water and a hand-stitched sign asking that Booker wash himself of his sins. "Good luck with that, pal" he mutters cynically to himself as he douses his face (which is optional, making for an interesting test of one's attitude to this world).
It's not all peace and light, however, for Booker is clearly on his mission under some duress. "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt! This is your last chance!" reads a letter in the box he carries with him on the boat - very similar to the case held by Jack in BioShock 1 - and soon he finds other, rather more distressing messages in a similar vein.
The Bioshock 1 beats continue as Booker makes his way to a sort of inverse Bathysphere which fires him into the skies - and to the airborne city of Columbia. 'ASCENSION' chants an electronic voice, then... 'HALLELUJAH.' An appropriate word for the resultant heavenly vision of this city in the clouds. The iconic guided tour of underwater Rapture is recreated with the floating, sprawling settlement known as Columbia, an enormous zeppelin taking the place of the blue whale which greeted Jack's eyes. The sense of familiarity is eerie, even though everything here is different in ways both big and small. This new game seems to be setting out its Bioshock stall immediately and overtly, and perhaps offering an early hint of what that 'Infinite' really means.
But where Jack's first encounter with the living in Bioshock quickly required him to make the Splicer not-living, in this instance Booker is soon met by a friendly blond chap wearing some manner of vestment. The cathedral atmosphere is writ-ever larger as Booker then wanders through a sort of religious wonderland of candles and water-soaked aisles, eventually reaching a reverent congegration and its priest, who chummily but forcefully demands he is baptised before he can enter the city proper. Not for the last time in my three or so hours with the game, Booker's submersion appears to almost cost him his life. Water seems to play an important part in Infinite, even though the series has relocated from the sea to the sky. Something to think about there, perhaps.
Booker comes to in a black and white vision of his office, angry men hammering at the door and demanding he bring them the girl. When he opens his office door and exits from this apparent dream/nightmare/flashback/who knows, he's back at the baptism site, but the priest has now let him past. So he's finally met with Columbia in all its almost overwhelmingly colourful glory.
3. Ah, Columbia. While it doesn't have the immediacy and strangeness of Rapture - I think, perhaps, experienced gamers have been up in the clouds many more times than they have on the ocean floor, so it's a less destabilising sight - what it does have, and evocatively so, is life and colour. There are people everywhere, and the game makes a point of quickly dropping us into a busy funfair, celebrating an important date in Columbia's calendar. No weapons and no violence as yet, and there's scope to spend a long time looking around the fair, looking at posters and watching performances, trying sideshows which disguise refreshingly optional combat tutorials and being introduced, non-lethally, to the technologies and magicks which will soon prove major parts of the action. There's huge attention to visual detail, and most characters chummily greet Booker as he wanders past. The idea of shedding blood in a place this happy and peaceful is already disturbing. Though there may be unsettlingly exaggerated patriotism and puritanical righteousness on display, Tthere is innocence here. There are children here. It seems safe.
At the same time, there's a slightly dreamlike air, a sense of something off-kilter - and it's not merely that we're floating in the skies. Certain characters keep reappearing, and some appear to know Booker even though he does not know them - or Columbia.
As well as this strange vibe of disassociation, signs and old-timey video machines reveal bits of the city's back-story and how the state of affairs here may be darker than this happy funfair suggests. Religious fear, armed rebels, anger at the homeland and references to razing Peking all crop up on the periphery. Then there's the issue of race, and what may likely prove to the biggest, loudest talking point around Bioshock Infinite.
4. I want to be very spoiler-averse here, as there's a critical moment in these early, apparently peaceful moments of the game which proved a big shock, and one you should experience for yourself. But, beyond that, even if you haven't noticed yourself that Columbia's population, at least in this festival area, is entirely white, later in the game it openly discusses segregation. The few black people here work in menial jobs, are restricted to seperate, shoddier bathrooms, leave audio diaries discussing their poor treatment, and treat you with cowed, servile fear. Columbia might be a science-fictional city in the sky, but nonetheless this is still a tale of America's dark history.
There is a secretive and illegal black rights movement here, but also demonstrating how little-desired equality is by Columbia's white population is the open, hateful xenophobia towards the Chinese and the native Americans to be seen in a museum documenting the 'heroic' exploits of their leader, Father Comstock. We are told, often, that he is the very best of men, a saviour and a saint, but to any right-thinking person it is soon all too clear that he is a bastion of intolerance and oppression.
5. He is also known as Zachary Hale Comstock, the Hero Of The Battle Of Wounded Knee and The Prophet. He is Columbia's Andrew Ryan, but a little more public and a little less mysterious, at least for now. His motivations are apparently religious rather than philosophical/societal, but he's no less of a lionised authority figure. From his talk of faith and honesty has spawned insidious concepts of purity and sin, but this city appears to love - revere - him despite, or perhaps because of, this. Before too long, once Booker's presence is made violently known, we get to meet Comstock more or less face to bushy-bearded face. Suffice to say he does not ooze kindness. Like so many others in Columbia, he seems to already be very familiar with Booker - but Booker does not know him. Comstock considers and proclaims our hero the very devil, and means to keep him from reaching his goal, the girl, at all costs.
6. Interestingly, perhaps as a consequence of the relatively limited technology in Columbia or perhaps for other reasons, the city does not automatically know what Booker looks like, so despite his encounter with Comstock he is rarely attacked on sight. Speakers throughout the city blare strident but vague warnings that an evil man walks its streets, but can only report rumours that he might be a dwarf or, worse, a Frenchman. Thus, Booker is often left alone, at least until he fires a shot or encounters particular characters. This too adds to the dreamlike feel - 'shouldn't I be shooting something?' Not necessarily. Not always.
Part two, with thoughts on Elizabeth and combat, to follow.